Blog: 2014

Wednesday, December 3

By William Sokolic, Courier-Post

On River Road at the head of Bannard Park in Pennsauken, the Delaware River might as well be a mile away rather than a block.

But that perception could change as part of a new five-year, $710,000 grant, according to Betsy McBride, deputy mayor and a grant booster.

The funds would provide resources to clear away brush and dead trees and create a trail leading to the RiverLINE tracks by the Delaware. Improvements to the park could include an amphitheater for concerts.

The grant, announced Wednesday, is multifaceted and covers a wide geographic swath in Pennsauken. Known as the Delaware Gardens Neighborhood Initiative, it targets the area from 36th Street to Browning Road and from River Road to Route 130.

The East Camden neighborhood adjacent to Pennsauken received $725,000 for a similar initiative.

The Wells Fargo Regional Foundation granted the funds to the township, the Camden County Board of Freeholders and UrbanPromise to assist youth with jobs, improve safety, upgrade the business corridor on Westfield Avenue, redevelop River Road, stabilize housing, target clean and green initiatives and build community in a diverse neighborhood.

Part of the program, dubbed Promise Team, works with 18- to 25-year-olds on probation for nonviolent crimes. The young people will receive a stipend to help clean up neighborhoods, while working on skills such as resume writing, McBride noted.

The grant grew from a resident survey a few years back, Mayor Jack Killion said. The results indicated people wanted, among other things, better signage, improved playgrounds, the hiring of youth to clean up lots and increased community pride.

Down 36th Street, where Camden and Pennsauken share a border, boundaries blur, McBride indicated. Changes funded by the grant are expected to instill a sense of community — with resident input, the deputy mayor added.

“We need to engage the residents so they embrace the program.”

Retired veteran Lazarus E. Jackson Jr. lives next door to a house that has been vacant for three years. While the lawn of the empty house gets mowed in front, the caretakers do nothing with the jungle growing out back, he complained.

“I have a beautiful lawn with a straight line,” he noted by comparison.

Jackson has a laundry list of items he’d like to see done to make life more livable in his town, including appropriate parking signs and repaired potholes.

Grant money also will be used to inventory trees, remove dead and diseased ones and plant others. Still another aspect deals with home maintenance education provided by Camden’s St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society via a free, eight-week course on minor home repairs.

Grant funds also will pay for sprucing up vacant properties — whether commercial or residential — and graffiti cleanup.

In addition, the Camden County Office of Sustainability will provide professional assistance with projects to enhance tree cover, rain gardens and neighborhood trail development.

“We will offer UrbanPromise and Pennsauken consultation as well as professional help for some of the physical enhancements,” Camden County Freeholder Michelle Gentek indicated in an email.

“We will help organize green team participation and help with parks, trees and trail work, because that will go along with our multi-use trail plan.”

The county public works is already in the process of working on the intersection of 36th and Rudderow streets.

“This is a high-speed area, so the county will be putting in a pedestrian light for people to push a button and have 20 seconds to cross the road,” Gentek noted.

“They will also install crossing signs and curb cuts so they are handicap accessible.”

McBride acknowledges $710,000 spread over five years doesn’t buy much.

“We need to go after other grants — for tools, murals, trees,” she said.

Pennsauken as a whole reaps the benefits as the township seeks more funding, Killion noted.

“We’re not going to turn down any money.”

Saturday, November 29

When students at Camden's UrbanPromise Academy high school learned they would have the chance to design Christmas ornaments to be displayed on New Jersey's tree in Washington, they wanted to reflect the range of cultures in the city and the state.

So they drew religious symbols, as well as pictures to represent racial diversity, peace, and harmony, such as a world map and two hands holding.

"I think it's an honor," said Chinyere Nwanosike, 16, one of two dozen students who created an ornament. "We wanted them to turn out as nice as we could."

The 24 ornaments will adorn one of 56 smaller trees representing U.S. states and territories that will surround the national Christmas tree in President's Park near the White House. After the tree-lighting ceremony, which is set for next Thursday, visitors from all over the world will be able to see the students' work.

The state's first lady, Mary Pat Christie, selected the school for the project earlier this year after seeing some of the students' earlier artwork, said art teacher Robert Kelleher.

"These beautiful stained glass ornaments crafted by UrbanPromise Academy students truly demonstrate the spirit of hope and promise they have for the future," Mary Pat Christie said in a statement. "The governor and I are so proud these works of art, which reflect the Garden State's cultural diversity and spirituality, will be showcased on the national stage this holiday season."

UrbanPromise Academy, a private Christian school in East Camden, was founded in 1997 and serves about 50 students.

Kelleher said his 10th- and 12th-grade students were inspired by Marc Chagall's Peace Window, a stained-glass artwork on display at U.N. headquarters in New York, which they studied this year. They decided to design their ornaments in a similar stained-glass style and drew their designs first on tissue paper.

Students have art class twice a week, and Kelleher said many of them ended up coming in during study hall or their free time to make sure they finished.

"They were really motivated to get them just right," he said.

The school sent the ornaments out to have the designs transferred to hard plastic orbs. Once they got the ornaments back, the students painted over them with a clear topcoat to enhance the shine.

"They actually turned out pretty well," said Jennifer Lopez, 16, who designed an ornament featuring a Japanese symbol for peace. "They look like glass."

By Allison Steele, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Wednesday, November 19

"Ugly...ugly...ugly,” chanted the group of 2nd grade girls with a frenzied intensity, “Don’t touch us, we don’t want to catch what you have.”

At the center of the jeering mob was a sweet and frightened little girl named Aisiah (pronounced Ai-asia).

She stood with her sweater covering her head, trying to disappear, wishing her mom was there or at least a caring teacher who could stop the girls. But no one did.

I wish I could say that was a rare occasion for Aisiah. Sadly, being ridiculed and bullied was a daily ritual at her public school, just a few blocks from UrbanPromise. Why?

Well, Aisiah looks different than the other children. She has a rare skin disorder called vitiligo—a condition that causes depigmentation—and in her case, severe reaction to sunlight. Aisiah’s disease was caused by trauma to her skin after she had an untreated accident at her school, and was exacerbated by misdiagnosis.  

Despite her mom doing training in the clasroom and enlisting help from the “anti-bullying group,” being jeered at was part of Aisiah’s daily routine. To make matters worse, when the other children were released to play outside, she had to sit next to a security guard in a darkened hallway to avoid the light.

Her mom sought refuge at a Camden health center.  A caring and loving nurse called UrbanPromise and tearfully pleaded for help. “She can’t go back to that school, it’s breaking her down.  Mom is doing everything she can. She quit her job to care for Aisiah and take her to therapy (daily). They can’t pay tuition.”

The nurse was familiar with UrbanPromise, and she promised Aisiah’s mom it was a different kind of place—a place that encouraged respect, kindness, love, and acceptance. Thanks to your donations, a presidential partnership was made available and Aisiah enrolled a month ago at the UrbanPromise’s CamdenForward School!

Her first day at her new school was memorable. Our students gave her a royal welcome. The upper class students lined up to hug her, her 2nd grade classmates competed to sit beside her, and when asked if anyone wanted to skip recess to keep Aisiah company, every child in the class raised their hand to stay inside! Needless to say, Aisiah was surprised and delighted, and none of the adults in the room had a dry eye, especially Aisiah’s mom.

“I’m so grateful for these students and the culture that has been established at this school,” confided her mother, “Aisiah is joyous all the time; she calls the other students her brothers and sisters...Even other parents stop me to offer help if I need it. What can I do to give back?” 

Aisiah’s mom is now a volunteer at the UrbanPromise's new Community Food Co-Op and a constant and helpful presence in the school and cafeteria. 

Gratitude….it’s a wonderful response to the way God moves in our lives. 

But Aisiah’s story will get even better.  In just a few days, she and her family will celebrate Thanksgiving with the other UrbanPromise families. For the first time little Aisiah will experience an UrbanPromise Thanksgiving dinner and begin to understand the foundation of this community of sharing, serving, and praying.

Thanksgiving at UrbanPromise is not just about eating; it’s about building community for children like Aisiah and her family.

UrbanPromise will serve over 1,000 Thanksgiving meals to our families throughout the city of Camden. 

Each meal costs about $5.00 to prepare and serve; we need to raise the $5,000 to make this possible.

I hope I can count on you to help again this year.


Bruce Main


Donate Now

PS. Typically I make a point of changing a child’s name and identifying facts to protect the privacy of the child and family.  However, Aisiah’s mother wants everyone to know about the effects of bullying and how brave her young daughter is and how grateful they are to be part of the UrbanPromise family now.

PPS. Aisiah’s story of bullying is becoming more and more prevalent. We have a waiting list of students who want to come to our school.  To help a student, please call our Executive Director, Jodina Hicks, at 856-382-1851 or email


Monday, November 17

It was a grey, cold, rainy day in Camden...

That didn't stop the 15 volunteers from UrbanPromise, True Covenant Church, and Touch New Jersey from showing up at 7 a.m., filled with anticipation and lots of energy.  By 8:30 a.m, people from Camden, Haddonfield, Pennsauken, and Moorestown had the downstairs of our newly renovated Spirit Building ready for opening day of our Community Food Co-Op. After a year of planning, we had a new building, equipment, food, greeters, baggers, food shoppers, health educators-we were ready.

In came our first family: a mother and her teenage son, both looking angry, not wanting to engage in conversation or respond to my greeting: “Good morning and welcome! You are our first member family!" My guess was that it was the game face of someone hating that they were there in need, talking to a total stranger who was there to help.

Stumbling for the right words, I was stopped when our youngest volunteer (my 5-year-old son) ran around the corner to do "his job." Aghast, I watched as he pelted mother and son in the chest with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and ran off. To my great relief and amazement, they both immediately broke out into laughter, with the mother sharing  "I needed that! This is a hard morning.” With that, the food co-op was underway.

Family after family came in, tentative and unsure. As I spoke with them, the conversations yielded similar results: "This is a co-op? Yes, I want to join. When can I start volunteering? Can I start today? Can my daughter help? Can my whole family help?  I absolutely want to give back and help others!” That response was before they went through the maze of cheerful and helpful volunteers including Nurse Becky who chatted up healthy food choices; a Camden brother and sister pair, who along with a chef, shared ways to prepare beets, Swiss chard, and other wonderful food offerings; a student (and her mom) from the UrbanPromise Academy who encouraged people to  take books from the sharing library; and members from a Camden church who helped people bag and carry food out to their cars.

By the end of the morning, 32 families had signed up as members, and all signed up to volunteer the following week. A total of 1,152 pounds of food was distributed to the 32 families, comprised of 55 adults, 67 children, and 6 senior citizens. All needing food. And all excited to be part of an empowering model for and by the community.

Since that cold and rainy Saturday a few weeks ago, the food co-op has been open for a total of three days and the members shared their first monthly communal meal together this past Friday night.

We are excited to bring such an important resource to the community and we hope that you will partner with us. Consider donating an item or two from our wish list below or make a financial gift to the food co-op to help us supplement donated food.

I will be sure to keep you updated on this exciting program.  

Jodina Hicks

Executive Director

Donate to the Food  Co-Op

Food Co-Op wish list:

  • 50 turkeys (for distribution on Nov. 22)
  • Dairy products
  • Meat products
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • A hand truck
  • Food funds 

Food Co-Op volunteer needs:

  • Child care
  • Legal help (pro bono)
  • Home maintenance trainers

The Camsauken Food Co-Op is open to members three Saturday mornings a month, (9 a.m.–12 p.m.) and one Friday a month (3 p.m.- 6 p.m.). The Co-Op is led by Touch New Jersey, UrbanPromise, True Covenant Worship Center, and Fresh Start Ministries in partnership with Philabundance and Farmers Against Hunger.


Tuesday, October 28

On September 29th, a brand new cafeteria was filled with wide-eyed elementary school students wearing party hats to celebrate the newly renovated Spirit Building on UrbanPromise’s campus. A long-time vision of the Camden non-profit is coming to fruition with their full-service kitchen and cafeteria; starting this week children in their programs will have access to healthy meals and snacks on a daily basis.

In cities like Camden, children and teens often lack access to healthy meals. Key findings in an obesity study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation demonstrated that  most Camden children do not consume the recommended amount of vegetables, but frequently consume high salt, high sugar foods. Parents reported limited availability of fresh produce and low-fat items in local stores.

“Nutritious food is critical to the healthy growth and development of children and teens,” explained UrbanPromise’s Executive Director, Jodina Hicks. “When families who already struggle to make ends meet have limited access to healthy foods, many simply cannot provide the balanced diet their children need. We are grateful for the opportunity to provide health meals and snacks that promote learning and growth for our students.”

With the help of the Walmart Foundation, UrbanPromise is launching their food programs, providing regular meals and snacks to a total of more than 600 children and teens in Camden. In addition, Walmart Foundation’s grant is supporting a program called UrbanChefs which trains young adults in the culinary arts, then employs them to prepare meals and snacks. UrbanPromise anticipates that they will serve more than 77,000 meals and snacks per year.

Monday, October 27

I have so many highlights from the banquet last Thursday night
- the opening prayer by the 4th graders, the delicious mashed potatoes, and the remarkable testimonies from our young people are just a few. The four little girls playing "paddy-cake" while singing their song warmed my heart, as did the children's choir (and their big personalities). Presenting our values of faith, community, holistic, and innovation gave our guests an insight into our organizational culture. 

But the real story was what happened in the dining hall while we were in the theatre—it’s the testimony that none of us witnessed. It’s easy to talk about values. It's easy to showcase our good work on a stage in front of hundreds of people. The real challenge is to live values.

Left with the daunting task of restoring the ballroom to its original splendor, our operations director Charlie Koerwer assembled a team of staff and youth to get the job done. It's a thankless task. But just as we do our own cooking, serving, and set-up, we also handle the break down and clean up.

I received several emails about the banquet this morning, but Charlie’s was my favorite:

“I can't tell you how thrilled I was to see our youth come together under the leadership of our teachers and others to clean up the banquet facility,” he wrote. “Cleaning 60 tables, stacking chairs, rolling tables, dumping liquids, scraping dishes, carrying glassware down steps (that made me cringe a bit) and getting it done in 2 hours was incredible...the energy in the room was amazing. Last nights' clean up effort was truly a highlight of my UrbanPromise experience. To see the youth and their leaders pull together for a not so fun job only increases my enthusiasm for what UrbanPromise does and can accomplish."

While we watched a wonderful program, our staff and youth feverishly worked out of the limelight. They worked as a community. They served because of their faith. They innovated ways to get the job done. Values were lived!

What you saw on stage and what Charlie experienced downstairs happened because of you. Sponsors, partners, donors, and volunteers impact our work tremendously. Whether you give $30 a month or $10,000 a year, your contribution allows UrbanPromise to exist. Thank you.

If you haven’t already done so, I ask that you make a pledge today. Your investment allows our values to transmit to more children and families.

Together we are making a difference.

Bruce Main


Tuesday, October 14


“I want to help that guy let go of his unrealistic expectations and prepare for a college where he could actually play.” Bob Lehman pointed emphatically at Thomas as he answered my question; I had just asked him what he wanted to do at UrbanPromise as he prepared to retire from a 42-year career at Archer & Greiner.

Thomas has been at UrbanPromise since he was five years old, first in afterschool programs and then at the CamdenForward School. His brother was a neighborhood teen when we started UrbanPromise; his cousin was one of our first UrbanPromise Academy students. Both had very

challenging childhoods and went the way of the streets. Thomas himself teetered at times and made a reputation for himself, which wasn’t all good. “Attitude” was the most common word used to describe him, even by his peers.

But he had a mother who was adamant that he would stick with school and have a better chance at life. He had a K-8 principal at UrbanPromise (Denise Baker) who cried, prayed, prodded, and checked in with Thomas every day after meeting him when he was in the 5th grade. And now he had Bob, a cut and dry attorney who comes across as gruff and stoic, but has a heart of gold.

“He needs to get real,” said Lehman. “He’s not going to the NBA or a D-1 school, but he could go to college, get a degree, and play college ball. That’s what I want to spend my time on.”

Six months later, two SAT tests, an application, one FAFSA form, and multiple financial aid forms complete, Bob was glowing like a proud parent. Thomas had found a four-year college where the coach had interest in him and had been admitted. “I’m so glad this is settling down.  I need to get my sleep; Thomas’ constant texting is keeping me up too late,” he said with a smile.

It wasn’t that simple, though.  The college bill – even after the loans and grants were applied – was prohibitive.  Once again, Bob went into action researching options, meeting with UrbanPromise’s college advisor, and looking into scholarship opportunities.

Two weeks ago, Thomas started college. He loves it. He’s coming home next weekend to see his family, including “Mr. Bob.” They have a Chick-Fil-A date scheduled.

In September, 180 students started school with UrbanPromise; 400 children and 80 teens will start after-school programs.  Amongst them will be many more Thomases, in need of the peer support, mentorship, and care that UrbanPromise offers.

Your support allows UrbanPromise to be a holistic community committed to providing innovative programs, scholarship support, wellness counseling, and most importantly loving, caring adults who are spurred on by their faith to invest in the most important things in life – our youth. 

I hope you’ll make a gift this fall to help us continue our back to school efforts.

Thank you! 

Jodina Hicks
Executive Director

Thursday, August 21

For the second year in a row, the TD Charitable Foundation, the charitable giving arm of TD Bank, provided a grant to UrbanPromise Ministries in Camden to train and employ teens in the StreetLeader program. The grant of $14,210 will pay for four jobs for 2014-2015.

Estefany Rodriguez is completing her first year as a StreetLeader. "This year has been amazing," the 11th grader noted, "like, the best year of my life."

After several weeks of working as a StreetLeader, Rodriguez was promoted to the position of assistant team leader. When asked why a program like this is important to teens in Camden, Rodriguez replied, "There are many stereotypes for teens in Camden: that they'll be dead by age 21, that they'll never graduate, that they'll be drug dealers. Many feel that's how it's supposed to be, but the StreetLeader program gives them a chance to be in a safe place, to be out of the street environment, and to see other options for their lives."

Since its inception in 1994, the StreetLeader program has engaged more than 1,400 teens, who mentor and offer educational support to younger children in Camden. Participants also receive support with college preparation. As a result, 100 percent of high school students in the StreetLeader program graduate and 93 percent go on to college, compared to those in Camden, where 62.3 percent over 25 have graduated from high school and only 7.2 percent attained a bachelor's degree.

Rodriguez plans to become a high school teacher in Camden. Other StreetLeader alumni committed to the city include a policewoman who patrols the area around UrbanPromise, an East Camden fireman, an UrbanPromise board member who owns her own business and several staff members.

Sunday, August 17

"So, what books do you like to read?”

The young man sitting next to me raised his fingers to his chin and furrowed his eyebrows like a philosopher of antiquity.

"Edger Allan Poe is one of my favorites," he shared thoughtfully. "Now Shakespeare is a close second...I mean, everybody loves Shakespeare, right?"

Right? Everybody loves Shakespeare.

Steven Cobb embodies the vision of the StreetLeader program: a new generation of leaders from Camden, rooted in Christian faith, who have the vision to make a difference in the world. As a third year English major at Rowan University, Steven wants to be a teacher someday. I'm confident he will be brilliant in that role.

“These kids are so vulnerable," adds Steven, forgetting that he was a "kid" just a few years ago. "They come to camp with heavy things on their heart and are just looking for someone to share it with; they come running to me. It's a real privilege."

Steven found the StreetLeader program through his sister Tori. Tori just graduated from Rowan University and is a 9-year veteran of UrbanPromise. This year, Tori served as a Field Supervisor of the StreetLeader Program. She wants to go to graduate school.

"My sister loves this program. I saw the way it changed her. I decided to join. Once I got involved I couldn't stop coming. I found role models in other StreetLeaders like Brahiem, Greg, and Jay Jay. Those guys inspired me!"

And that's the way the StreetLeader program works. Teens recruit their siblings and friends. New recruits discover older role models who embody the virtues of faith, courage, compassion, and vision. Newer members aspire to become like the veterans. Children in our camps look up to the StreetLeaders and dream of being one someday. A cycle of positive peer pressure is created, and our younger teens begin to recalibrate their goals and dreams, moving away from the destructive forces of the streets to focus on successful futures.

Steven is now inspiring a new generation of children in his community. He coached the winning basketball team at Camp Freedom. He taught and developed curriculum for recreation class. He even introduced a few of his kids to Shakespeare, because, after all, "everybody loves Shakespeare." 

Research studies show that summer jobs can have a significant impact on the lives of young people, especially young people who live in high-risk environments such as Camden. Positive outcomes include increased school performance and attendance, increased SAT/ACT scores, decreased violence, and decreased involvement in drugs. The StreetLeaders at UrbanPromise know this and more: they know what the job means to them personally. It means hope, a future, making a difference in their city right now.

A few months ago many of you sent a gift to help UrbanPromise hire 90 StreetLeaders this summer. Together we did it! Teens were hired into their first job(s) and attended workshops on leadership, healthy eating, grief, and resume writing. Our teens provided staffing for 9 day camps that provided 500 Camden children a fun, safe, and memorable summer. Five of them helped launch the new camp in Fairview. And a few of them piloted a new job arm for UrbanPromise, the Street2Leader Program. These teens, who’ve been in some trouble with the courts, were hired for public realm work, cleaning up parks and painting murals in Camden while also working on resolving their personal issues, developing a career plan, and focusing on positive next steps. Over this past month, they restored 2 murals and did park clean-up, culminating in a wonderful closing event at Dudley Grange Park. At an open mic/poetry event last Friday, local residents were amazed at the beautiful turn-around of the park once known to kids in East Camden as “Needle Park.”

Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for believing in young people like Steven and Tori. 

Bruce Main

President, UrbanPromise

P.S. Our StreetLeader Program isn’t just for the summer: it runs year round! StreetLeaders return in mid-September to help lead AfterSchool Programs across the city. Learn more about how you can continue to support the StreetLeader Program.

Wednesday, August 13

View Video

BROOKPORT -- The first homes rebuilt through the Massac and Pope County Recovery Committee will be dedicated this weekend. Their plan has been to construct and repair dozens of homes impacted by the November 17th tornado.

Three families are getting ready to move into their new homes, and they're hoping even more volunteers will keep that good work moving forward.

A journey of more than 900 miles started with a story.

"That it was a bad, bad tornado, and it destroyed a lot people's homes," said volunteer Dominique Tantorieas. 

Tantorieas is part a volunteer group traveled from Camden, New Jersey all the way Brookport to spend one week building houses. They raised money to pay for their trip and hope to make good progress over the next several days.

"Just to see at least this house, the owner of this house, smile when we show him that it's finished," said Tantorieas. 

The home is one of three that is nearly complete. Those houses will be part of the Massac and Pope County Recovery Committee dedication ceremony on Saturday.

"They didn't have much, and when the tornado left, they didn't have anything," said MPCRC Construction Supervisor Eddie Osburn. "Now, they've got a brand new house."

Caseworkers meet with tornado victims and let the committee know about their needs. That's when Osburn gets working on the plans. Since January, 10 houses have started to take shape.

"When we needed an electrician, the good Lord sent us an electrician," said Osburn. "When we needed a plumber, He sent us a plumber."

Volunteers have been a big part of the process and cut about half off the cost to build a home.

The goal is to construct more than 20 houses and repair another 30 before the project is done. It's a tall order that Osburn believes is worth all the time and labor.

"You can't imagine until you experience the feeling you get," said Osburn. "When you take somebody that hasn't got anything, and you give him a house."

The dedication on Saturday is at 1 p.m. They ceremony will start at a house on Short Street.

The committee is always looking for more volunteer. If you would like to pitch in, contact Mt. Sterling Cumberland Presbyterian Church Pastor David LeNeave at 618-564-2616.



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